If Baltimore is the world’s commune for post-hardcore activity, and electro cartoon nut Dan Deacon the local Messiah, Double Dagger are the city’s most exuberant punks who play with the urgency of At The Drive In and intelligence of Mission of Burma
In the late 70s/early 80s, New York was a one-stop-shop, first for US punk, and then for new wave. On the other side of the country hardcore was inspired by and then disgusted by the east coast. LA – and then DC – was (and to an extent still is) the Promised Land for aggressive, uncompromising, vigilantly un-commercial DIY rock. For today’s post-hardcore crowd, Baltimore, Maryland, is the Mecca – a tightly knit creative community like few others, centred by Technicolor’d, experimental gnome Dan Deacon and his Wham City arts collective. From the bonkers, kiddy babble of Ponytail to the desperately emotional organ sounds of Future Islands, the city houses every clever and passionate strand of modern American DIY, and in Double Dagger the scene has found post-hardcore’s most urgent, least nostalgic (their new EP, ‘Masks’, starts with a song called ‘Imitation is the Most Boring Form of Flattery’) party band.
“How to say this without sounding like a jerk,” ponders singer (read: ranter) Nolen Strais. “Errr…there’s just way too many bands whose whole thing is ripping off the past and being a carbon copy of it. With Double Dagger we definitely have our influences; we take them and try to do something new with it, but meanwhile a lot of contemporary bands are just mimics. It’s brainless and ultimately heartless.”
“It’s one thing to do something within a style or genre,” adds Bruce Willen [bass] “but there’s so many musicians – or artists, even; it’s not limited just to music – who are a pastiche of someone from 4 years ago or 10 years ago. ‘Hey, we’ve got the clothes. We’re even gonna dress the same as these guys!’,” he mocks. “It’s weird!”
It’s certainly weird enough for Nolen to take a swipe at around ‘Imitation…’’s halfway point – “And look at you, you’ve even got the clothes,” he half speaks with no uncertain amount of disgust. In their 8-year-long career, it’s quite possibly Double Dagger’s best track yet, perhaps because it so neatly sums up their ethos of originality (it also features the defiant opening line, This is an address to the unhealthy state of the union. And: We’re stuck in a cycle of regurgitation/All the ideas of another generation. AND: We discovered the best way to mass affection is to repeat the best parts of your record collection). Nolen’s clever rhymes that carry his astute dislikes are a result of him listening to hip hop as a source of inspiration; Lil’ Wayne and a handful of others being the only new music he listens to, which is unsurprising considering how the band feel about the rock’n’roll copyists of today.
Double Dagger are forever being compared to past hardcore and punk bands though, and not unfairly. The At The Drive-In nod is particularly appropriate, considering the band’s abrasive delivery, and likening them to those found on Dischord Records’ impressive roster is not far from the truth either.
“It’s somewhat irritating,” says drummer Denny Bowen who joined the band in 2004 “but it doesn’t really change what we do. As much as people say we sound like a band like Fugazi, none of us actively listen to them, but we take it as a compliment because they’re a band that receives a lot of reverence and good praise, y’know? But what we’re making happen is truly original. I feel like it is.”
They make a lot of noise for a band without a guitarist. Bruce swapped his six-string instrument for four after his and Nolen’s previous band split and made way for Double Dagger. They were a heavy metal band called League of Death…obviously.
“We weren’t evil or talented enough for heavy metal…” says Bruce.
“So we mainly fell down a lot, broke equipment and ran at the audience,” adds Nolen.
“And slapped my ass,” says Denny to titters. He clearly went to a particularly friendly League of Death show.
Bruce: “It was a dark and evil band but that wasn’t even the music we were listening to. Double Dagger was a move to playing music that we actually liked, and it seemed that it wasn’t necessary to have a guitar. It made writing songs a challenge. Like, ‘how do we make this pop-punk or whatever and do something that isn’t just a bass-line but the essence of the melody?’”
Like Minor Threat (DD comparison 103), they make music that is surprisingly melodic when you consider how loud they play and that Nolen pretty much talks the verses and shouts the chorus parts. On 2009’s ‘More’ LP (the band’s third full album) their ability to be aggressively rallying and positively melodious is best shown through ‘The Lie/The Truth’; a song on which the band dust off the quiet/loud/quiet Pixies formula and sing about the mundanity of small town life in the States. Like the delicate instrumental that closes ‘Masks’ (‘Song For 5’), it shows that the band are capable of expressing emotions beyond frustration and anger. “I guess it is a different side,” blushes Bruce “the non-aggressive side of Double Dagger. We’re sensitive guys too,” he laughs.
“On our early stuff, I was angry and complaining,” says Nolen. “And that’s what every punk band does, but doing that over and over just gets boring and stale, and as I’m getting older I’ve started looking at things in a more complexed and nuanced way. I think there’s still a good bit of frustration at the root of the lyrical themes but I consciously have tried to not wallow in that anger.”
“‘Masks’ is full of façades,” explains Bruce. “Like, ‘Imitation is the Most Boring Form of Flattery’ is about putting up this fake façade and then on ‘Pillow Talk’ there’s this theme of being too scared to say what you’re really feeling, and etc etc, and there’s a lot of that in Nolen’s lyrics.”
The more you listen to Double Dagger – and the further you delve into their lives – the more you realise that they’re full of contradictions. They’re from the ashes of a metal band that slapped bums; they’re angry but poignant; a blur of urgent noise but full of moments of clarity. Their Myspace address is /doubledaggersucks, which isn’t true. Even their name is a ying-yang affair. It’s no League of Death, but ‘Double Dagger’ would still make an awesome looking trucker’s tattoo if written in the right curly, jagged, black font. It still sounds tough. The thing is, the band is actually named after the symbol that marks a third literary footnote (the first, school leavers, being an asterix [*], the second a dagger [†], and the third finally being the double dagger [‡], which you’ll find on the band’s T-shirts), and punctuation is not tough.
“That is definitely intentional,” admits Bruce. “It’s just a funny juxtaposition that you have this tough sounding name but it’s actually this footnote – this obscure, typographic, literary, dictionary reference.”
“Yeah, it’s tongue-in-cheek,” nods Nolen. “Like, the band from the outset we considered to be this minor element, this footnote.”
But 8 years, 3 albums and 7 single/EPs on it’s not. Surely Double Dagger don’t equate to a footnote these days – and a third footnote at that.
“Hell no!” yells Denny to more bursts of laughter.
“We definitely never thought that we’d have a record out on a well known indie label,” muses Bruce of the band signing to Chicago’s trustworthy Thrill Jockey imprint (Mi Ami, High Places). “And we never thought we would be going on tour in Europe. We never had big plans. We just wanted to have fun.”
True to the band’s quiet/loud pulse, Bruce and Nolen hold down day jobs you’d not expect two Baltimore punks to. Bussing tables, working in a garage, menial admin or grave digging all seem like suitable money-spinners for angry, creative hardcore types. Ian McKaye worked in a cinema booth for five years and hated every second of it, rather fittingly. Bruce and Nolen own their own graphic design company called Post Typography and have been commissioned by the New York Times before now, along with other high profile clients. It’s just another opposing side to Double Dagger – the band that make and play heart-pounding, noisy, righteous punk by night and draw in an office, sometimes for mainstream America, by day. “I’m unsensible enough for all three of us,” laughs Denny in reassurance.
“I don’t think it’s weird,” says Nolen “it’s more surreal. A couple of years ago we spoke at an event that was supposed to inspire students to go into the field. And that evening we got invited to this dinner party with these big named celebrities in the design field, but the band had a show that night so instead of being at the dinner we played a show in a punk bar.”
Double Dagger’s hardcore attitude has never been in doubt, and if anything Post Typography solidifies it. Choosing a basement show with your band over work is easy when it means missing four dollars an hour flipping burgers, but Bruce and Nolen have – in true Baltimore style – artistic, self-made careers going on, and yet more often than not they still opt for straining their voices from within the sixth row (Nolen avoids the stage as if it’s cursed) and thrashing out agitated guitar-less punk.
In the recently released ‘Masks’ – a 5-track EP that they see as a continuation of last year’s ruthlessly quick ‘More’ – Double Dagger have neither courted nor run away from those Dischord Records comparisons, which still, thankfully, stand up. But they have given us an opportunity to catch our breath on songs like the lyrically sparse ‘Sleeping With The TV On’ and ‘Song For 5’, and in those moments it is not hard to see that, in the world of post-hardcore, they’re as original as they wish to be.
By Stuart Stubbs
Originally published in issue 16 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. April 2010